Without giving away any off-the-record comments, let me just say that State's staff was counting on a successful debut. So was I, right up to actual gameday. I'll also admit those last-day doubts stemmed more from fears of what an first-night flop might do to a team that had been pointing to and counting on this single game since March. It was as if they, and we, were staking every-2006-thing on the debut.
Well. As the book puts it, that which we greatly feared has indeed come upon us. And that palpable advance enthusiasm has deflated more explosively than the Hindenburg, to the point some are giving an over/under for this weekend's gate (early kickoff, regional TV, top-five opponent that shut ‘em out last time) at 35K. At least nobody will be using dove season as an excuse.
Keep in mind this refers only to fandom, not the players themselves. Because those who came to speak with reporters post-loss did not look or sound like beaten-down Dogs. Nor did their coach. Angry about the outcome and with themselves for letting it play out that way, yes. But broken by unexpected defeat? Nope. Whether freshmen or seniors, every Dog who stepped up to the microphones said the same things.
That they gave their best effort (if not execution), know exactly what went wrong, and what to do about it all. And, judging by voices and expressions, they believe it. Likely some would read this as denial, but I don't think so. Because, objectively speaking, State was probably one play from changing that entire game, and we can all pick out several options which could have—would have--been that singular snap.
Call me crazed or in denial myself, but if Adam Carlson only chips through that routine (and I still cannot figure out why he was kicking) field goal after USC's first-play turnover the evening develops very differently, and I don't just mean State avoids a shutout. Day-after review points to a simple run where if the rookie back takes the correct cut he goes 70 yards for the go-ahead score, and all the Dog defense needed this night was a lead to protect. Open downfield receivers such as Tony Burks went unseen save on tape, and while it would've been a great grab Keon Humphries had his chance to change the game late in the second quarter. Though on second thought, a tying three-pointer would've still been iffy even at that range. And so on we can go.
The point here is that was a Gamecock club ready for the first-night plucking, unsure of itself defensively and set up to fail. It was the confidence gained from successive scoreless State quarters that kept the pressure off the visitors and on the hosts, and made one gimmick double-pass touchdown a back-breaker instead of just an annoying lapse. Bottom line, the Bulldogs woulda, coulda, and shoulda won, and they know it.
So do the rest of us, which is why this one hurts so much more. We'd be hard-pressed this evening to find fans with realistic—stress that, realistic—hopes of a break-even season now, unless South Carolina turns out to be a better ball team than most of State's remaining conference foes. No, I don't think that either; the Gamecocks may've surprised defensively but in no aspect can they be currently classed with Auburn, LSU, or Georgia. I'm not even convinced they're on a par with what I saw from Arkansas last night, and that's a scary thought.
Yet I'll still allow credence to those positive post-game comments from coach and players for a couple of reasons. Firstmost, because it really was a game that sooooooo easily could've turned had State broken one play. Heck, if David Heard looks the right way at the right instant it's a scoreless halftime at worst. I don't blame anyone for that gadget TD play, it's just the price a defense will sometimes pay for being aggressive and all other things considered I like their approach and makeup.
Secondly (though this isn't exactly encouraging), we now know State's offense was knocked out-of-synch on their very first play from scrimmage. When Henig took that initial shot he was clearly rattled, if not outright dazed. The broken collarbone later only finished his evening and potentially the year. No, it wasn't his throwing shoulder, and he is due back in mid-October…but you can bet every defense will have a mental bulls-eye on that wing. Tough as Henig is, a full-fledged comeback is much to ask. The video of Henig practically in tears as he came back to the field may become the image of State 2006, for what might-have-been…though this begs another question. What the heck was he doing scrambling on the initial play? He's been taught to unload instead of forcing things, especially in the FIRST QUARTER. I can only account it to the soph's natural, emotional desire to make it happen big, early. The pity is what it will likely cost this offense and thus entire team from now on.
Because yet another wrinkle to that first play of '06 was, contrary to popular assumption of State's perceived offensive conservatism, Henig was going to throw the football. The offensive staff wanted to seize on the ‘moment' set up by that opening interception, instead of playing it safe. How many of us recalled that in the morning-after gloom, eh? It makes the irony that much more bitter that the Gamecocks essentially took the same approach in the fourth quarter after State gave the ball back on a failed 4th-and-1, by going to the gimmicks; and that it worked for them.
Referring again to the ‘conservative' label hung on State's offense, do we also remember what was called when Tray Rutland took over for his first college action? Right, he threw deep and on-target for Humphries. And let's keep in mind that the rest of the way coordinator Woody McCorvey was working with a somewhat-restricted playbook that the backup quarterback and redshirt freshman was comfortable with. I know, I know. South Carolina put a true frosh on the field early and he hit a deep strike that set up the first field goal. Bluntly, that is why Chris Smelley was a prized recruit, and a further reflection of the truth that Mississippi State has, does, and will always struggle to recruit elite prep triggermen. But it will only take one breakthrough, somewhere, someday…
Sylvester Croom is a man of faith but you just know there have to be times he wants to face heaven-ward and ask why? Six months of preparing an offense keyed around his quarterback's game-sense and maturity, and after one play all fine plans are knocked for a loop. Now Rutland has the job and the responsibility. I've liked the kid's potential since watching him in March, tossing indoors while rain delayed the start of a practice. It was something about how he set his feet, cocked the ball properly, and delivered a pass instead of slinging a throw. And while it means absolutely nothing practical, southpaw passers just look more interesting in action. I also liked his words and expressions post-loss Thursday, he talked…well, like a college quarterback.
But let's not delude ourselves and build whole structures of hopeful straws; Henig was still superior in spring and August drills and significantly so. He knows so much more about what this offense is designed to do, or at least attempt, as well as what he had to work with. Heck, he should as a third-fall soph. And no matter what it looks like from the stands, the game program doesn't lie; both Henig and Rutland are listed at 6-1 tall.
So Henig's injury at the very least damages the whole Dog gameplan. Now it's up to the offensive staff to figure what Rutland can and should do in his first start and second appearance. And as noted immediately afterwards, Omarr Conner knows he is about to do a lot of practice double-duty. A whole lot. At least he'll know the plays thoroughly from both sides of the pitch-and-catch equation! But whoever is under center will be facing a far, far superior defense with play-breaking speed everywhere. Put it this way, it'll be a rare play where any MSU receiver gets more than five strides downfield before the passer has to unload to a spot. That brings us around to another nagging issue…is it really this @#$% hard to find a guy who can run fast, run the correct route, and catch a football? At the moment Humphries is the only seeming long threat on the roster; everyone else is a short or middle-range guy, even Burks who isn't a burner himself.
That sort of receiver corps can work in this offense if the other aspects do, and I still like what Brandon Thornton and Anthony Dixon offer. By the way, I have absolutely no complaints with State going on 4th-and-1 at midfield given the situation, nor the play itself. Dixon knows that he froze, and next time he'll know to just hammer ahead and use that muscle. And strange as it might sound today, I don't think the offensive line was all that bad. That's not the same as saying they are good, understand; but I can actually forsee the makings of a decent group up front…against comparable competition. Which Auburn, LSU, et.al., ain't, but of course we knew that going in. The bigger question is if State will ever stockpile enough SEC-calibre blockers to run ANY offensive system, and I don't have any Sunday response there.
If all this sounds as if yer editer has already conceded Saturday, don't worry. I'll be there three-plus hours before kickoff as usual, eventually seated in my assigned spot, keying in the pre-game info and prepping for contest coverage. Just like two seasons ago, come to think of it, when a Florida squad came to town for a matchup I wouldn't have wagered a press box hot dog (mmmm, tasty) on. Without trying to stress the matter overmuch, I still have to factor in the overall August attitude of this team which simply can't be compared to the previous two fall camps. Goodness knows Croom is about to count on this upgraded mindset to carry the club for a while longer.
And as to those pessimistic attendance forecasts, I've got to think a portion of fans will show just to see what happens at quarterback. Of if the defense can hang with a top-ten club this time around, or the play-calling against the best defense State is likely to see in '06. And, if some special teams can get their acts together. By the way, Croom had made it clear since spring that if necessary first-team personnel would be used on kicking squads if needed. Did y'all notice that four defensive starters—specifically, the whole starting secondary—were on the field for the opening kickoff? Sadly, that was the only Bulldog kickoff of the evening.
Which gets to my modest goals for week-two. Score points. It's no secret this is the fundamental issue with Mississippi State circa 2006. We can tout the virtues and values of defense from now to kickoff but the fact remains college football, like most any sport at any level where admission is charged, is about entertainment. Put another way, people pay to see their side move the ball and score…if not often at least often enough to justify their investment of time, emotion, and dollars. And especially if their side isn't winning a lot; then entertainment has to carry the program until success can be achieved.
There's still a long season ahead. After the flameout on opening night the challenge is for State to light a fire among the still-faithful that this team can still play up to the raised preseason expectations. If not, it really will be a long season.